“God is only known through love,” youth worker and retreat leader Mark Yaconelli told the Youth Worker Conference here July 31.

“Our struggle is to allow this knowledge … to somehow grow and overwhelm us,” he said.

The Youth Worker Conference is part of the National Evangelism and Church Growth Conferences (ECG 2012), which also includes conferences on church transformation, evangelism, collegiate ministry and new church development.

Yaconelli told a story about a young teacher in inner-city Toronto, who asked parents to volunteer in the classroom. One mother brought in her six-month-old daughter, and students observed the baby’s vulnerability and began to share their own feelings. One day, a troubled boy put the baby to sleep, and the teacher saw him awaken to his own capacity to love.

“Your calling is rooted in that moment,” Yaconelli said. “How do we become like that boy? How do all of us live in that moment?”

Youth workers aim to cultivate a space that lets seeds of love grow in a culture that seems determined to distract us from this — we struggle to discern what is real and what isn’t, Yaconelli said.

“Every act of love brings God into the world,” he said.

Humans know each other through love, which is really all that matters. And every time we act in love, we bring God to the experience, Yaconelli said.

For Christians, relationships are key, he added. Jesus tells his followers to spend time with the people on the margins — that’s where new levels of love are found.

We’re also supposed to love ourselves, Yaconelli said. Youth workers want to reach out to angry or depressed kids but have no mercy when they see those same feelings in themselves. But until we can have compassion for the “bad” parts of ourselves, it’s hard to love those same parts in others.

“They’re deeply connected,” Yaconelli said. “Love others as you love yourself.”

In ministry, we need to love ourselves as we love others.

In addition to loving ourselves and others, we love God, Yaconelli said. But how? And how do we receive God’s love?

We live in a culture that wants to substitute anything for relationships, he noted. Many teens don’t know any adults other than their parents, so how can they be expected to transition to adulthood?

In the United States, we live in a culture of individual perfectionism, Yaconelli said. We value the self-made and self-reliant. If a person fails or needs help, they’re seen as a sinner, and we’re reluctant to help them. Youth are taught that their value lies in their achievements and possessions, and so they feel confused by a church that tells them they’re loved just as they are.

We also live in a culture of anxiety. Those in ministry often hear how the church is dying and feel a lot of pressure to find new, younger members to save the denomination. But something bigger is happening, he said.

“Don’t worry about it,” Yaconelli urged. “It’s not your issue and it’s not your fault.”

What would our culture look like if it was rooted in love and trust rather than fear and anxiety? he queried. Instead of control, it might focus on contemplation.  Instead of results, it might focus on relationships. And instead of perfection, it might focus on compassion.